Shining City at Theatre Royal Stratford East review: Polished performances hampered by a palaver of pacing

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Brendan Coyle in Shining City  (Marc Brenner)
Brendan Coyle in Shining City (Marc Brenner)

Brendan Coyle gives a hauntingly beautiful performance in the first London revival of Conor McPherson’s Shining City since its 2004 premiere at the Royal Court. In Nadia Fall’s production, he plays John, a man who starts seeing a therapist after the death of his wife. He also happens to have seen her ghost following him around and is so scared shitless that he hasn’t been back to his house since.

Said therapist Ian (Rory Keenan) doesn’t need to do much coaxing. John is a walking open wound, spinning yarns in between intermittently bursting into tears. We later discover that he’s not just dealing with unprocessed grief, but a burdensome sense of shame and self-blame at how he responded to the difficulties of his marriage.

It wouldn’t be a play set in a therapist’s office without a bit of countertransference, and across its five scenes we also see Ian trying to abandon Neasha, his girlfriend and mother of his newborn child (Michelle Fox), and seeming to take direct inspiration from one of John’s stories with a young man called Laurence (Curtis Lee Ashqar).

Brendan Coyle and Rory Keenan in Shining City (Marc Brenner)
Brendan Coyle and Rory Keenan in Shining City (Marc Brenner)

Here, McPherson’s writing is all in the ellipses; it’s both naturalistic and a funny way to convey the awkwardness of two men talking about deep stuff. There’s a lot in the end of sentences that people don’t quite get to. “How are you?” Ian asks, the second time they meet. “I’m...” he replies, before eventually settling on, “this helps.”

Coyle has the most to do, but the other performances are largely excellent. As Ian, Keenan turns himself into a blank canvas for John, simply listening for a large chunk of the action – but he’s also ill at ease, twitchily turning the clock around to remind them both how many minutes are left in today’s session.

Rory Keenan in Shining City (Marc Brenner)
Rory Keenan in Shining City (Marc Brenner)

The play itself, though, can feel meandering and bloated, and a last minute twist is beyond cheeky. It doesn’t help that when each scene ends, the curtain comes down for a looo-ooo-ooong time, accompanied by the kind of music you hear when you’re on hold to the bank. It kills any momentum stone dead – not ideal for a show that runs for an hour and fifty minutes with an interval.

And on that note, get me an osteopath! My neck is still diagonal from having to crane to see half of the stage. Having our theatres back open is a thing of joy and beauty, but asking audiences still to pay to sit in uncomfy seats where you can’t see properly? Not so much.

Theatre Royal Stratford East, until Oct 23; stratfordeast.com

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